|Anita Desai, the author|
Somewhat similarly was also born Biriyani, out of a need to have a food which contained meat and rice together so that cooked rice and meat wouldn't have to be separately carried to army camps as soldiers’ food. Alas, unlike Biriyani, Urdu didn’t survive the test of time. It became popular in its day but after the fall of the Mughal empire and the coming of the British, Urdu’s decline started. It further hurtled down the road of decline and eventual obscurity with the independence of India, and the growing prominence of English and Hindi and that followed.
However, Urdu is a language of poetry and there are fans of Urdu even today. Written by Anita Desai, In Custody’s Deven is one of them. Deven is a Hindi lecturer in a college in a small town and loves Urdu poetry. His friend, an editor of an Urdu literary magazine, commissions Deven to interview Nur, a famous Urdu poet, who is now old and decrepit, for his magazine. Nur is Deven’s childhood literary hero and Deven happily takes up the project and goes to Chadni Chowk, in Delhi, to interview the poet.
Far from finding the poet in an environment fit for poetry and reflection, Deven finds Nur in an unwholesome condition, staying in a dilapidated house in Chandni Chowk, heavily drinking and gorging on greasy Biriyani from the bazaar and surrounded by spongers and hanger-ons. In the raucous created by Nur’s visitors in the terrace where Deven meets Nur, Deven’s repeated attempts to interview the poet fail.
Finally, Deven persuades his college to pay for a tape recorder to interview the poet and arranges to smuggle Nur out of his house away from his envious relations into a somewhat quieter place , a brothel, where he can record Nur’s autobiographical account in Nur’s own voice and leave it for the posterity. Alas, many goof ups later, the endeavour fails again.
In Custody opens with a great promise but that promise somewhat fizzles out as the story settles into what I would say a limited plot. I had expected a detailed account of the birth, rise and fall of the Urdu language through Nur but no such thing takes place (except some lamenting by the poet about Urdu's declining prominence) and the poet’s plot time has been mostly spent on his indulgences and senilities. The poet seemed like a physical representation of the condition the Urdu language is in today.
Anita Desai’s writing is completely natural and her sentences read like she writes them just as they form in her mind without any attempt to embellish them, and they read surprisingly simple, completely unpretentious, light, crisp and fresh. No matter what’s the plot of her story just her writing style has the ability to carry the reader through.
She is a story teller in the mould of RK Narayan with simple plots that can sometimes read a little slow but surprises the reader with twists and turns. Her characters, like Narayan’s , are ordinary people with foibles coming from small towns and caught in the tangle of their problems. Her simple language also reminds the reader of Narayan.
At the end of the story, when there is no practical way left to salvage anything from the recordings Deven made, in a moment of reflection, Deven realizes that even after Nur dies his poems and soul will not quit with him; they will live on with Deven who through his regard for Nur’s work and an earnest effort to preserve it has become the rightful custodian of Nur’s legacy. That’s Deven’s success.